Meditations On Migration And Summer’s End

For most of us, the Dog Days of summer have just passed. They get their name from the “Dog Star,” Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major — the Big Dog —which is in line with our sun in the noonday sky. Apparently the ancients, whoever they may have been, believed the Dog Star added to the sun’s heat, resulting in Dog Days.

Speaking of ancient portents, the Great Comet of 2020, Comet NEOWISE — the worst-named but most spectacular comet since 1997’s Hale-Bopp — will be receding from view as it leaves the solar system. I hope you had a chance to see this brilliant celestial visitor in the northwest sky.

Back on solid ground, the ebb and flow of the seasons continues as it always has. For most migratory birds, August heralds the irresistible urge to go south. The young have left the nest, and it’s time to think about fueling up for the journey. The first chill nights of late August will stir their wanderlust.

Hummingbirds are among the earlier birds to commence preparations for their departure. At this time of year, a patch of jewelweed flowers or a simple home nectar feeder can attract anywhere from a few to a dozen hungry hummers. Come September, most of our resident species, the ruby-throated hummingbird, will make their way to Mexico and Central America, with some overwintering in Florida.

The farther the journey, the more important the fuel. Tiny blackpoll warblers, which leave later in September and fly nonstop from the Northeast over the ocean to South America, must double their body weight in fat before their epic flight.

Flocking is another feature of the pre-migration rush. Swallows — especially tree swallows — come together around now in enormous flocks. In the late afternoon and evening, you can see them swirling around marshes like clouds of smoke before disappearing into the reeds to roost. Similarly, “funnel clouds” of chimney swifts descend into chimneys to spend the night.

Most songbirds, such as warblers and thrushes, migrate after dark. Come fall, one of the best ways to enjoy migrating birds is simply to listen at night to the sounds of the voyagers as they pass overhead. You can’t see them, but you can hear their tiny calls, “sips” and “seeps,” as they follow the stars and the earth’s magnetic field. I let my imagination fly with them.

Nighthawks are among my favorite birds — acrobatic migrants that flock up in late afternoon and at dusk over fields and ponds to hawk insects before gradually heading south. Catching sight of one of these silent nighthawk feeding frenzies is a real treat.

Not all migratory or resident birds are looking ahead. For some, summer lives on. Goldfinches are raising their families in August, perfectly timed to the ripening of seeds. Robins and other birds are having their second, third or fourth broods.

And not only birds. Quite a few species of dragonflies and butterflies migrate as well. Among the former, green darners and black saddlebags are probably the largest and most recognizable. Monarch butterflies stage perhaps the best known migration among the lepidoptera, making their way to the forests of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, where they roost among the trees in the millions.

As for me, I relish the first cool, crisp nights of the advancing autumn, the crystalline stars, the Andromeda galaxy rising behind Pegasus, the flying horse, the croaking katydids, and the hint of excitement in the air. Maybe it’s some remnant of the schoolboy in me, but fall feels like the season of renewal and rebirth in my bones, full of possibility.

Even now, as we shelter in place weathering the storm of infection and uncertainty, nature continues on, the seasons come and go, and love lingers.


Fred Baumgarten is a regular contributor to Compass on music, culture and nature.

Flocks of tree swallows can look like clouds of smoke, swirling over marshes in the evening. Photo by Lans Christensen​

You can easily attract pre-migration hummingbirds with jewelweed or nectar. Photo by James H. Clark​

Monarch butterflies have perhaps the most famous southward migration of all the winged creatures. Photo by Debra A. Aleksinas​

Flocks of tree swallows can look like clouds of smoke, swirling over marshes in the evening. Photo by Lans Christensen​

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